Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Pixabay, used with permission

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes,” remarked former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. “It is very easy to say yes.”

You don’t have to be a leader to wrestle with saying no. Regardless of role, responsibility, title, or position, many of us find ourselves wanting to decline a request for our time, but we don’t know how to say no assertively.

And yes, you can say no to a request, because a request is not a command. A request is an ask to which we can say "yes", "no" or make a counteroffer, while a command assumes an obligation. However, we often think of requests as commands, sometimes due to the tone in which the request is made, or a power differential, or our fear of the other person's reaction, or even a feeling of indebtedness. 

Nevertheless, while we all know that “no” is a complete sentence when it comes to responding to a request, we often wrestle with being too passive (when we want to avoid conflict or hurt feelings), too aggressive (when we worry our needs will be ignored), or even passive-aggressive (when we’re feeling manipulated, punished or otherwise concerned that an honest or direct approach won’t work).

A passive approach to saying no might sound like “Ok, I’ll do it…this time” when we don’t want to do it this time (or at all). Or it could sound like, “Maybe I can” when you already know that you can’t or don’t want to say yes.

An aggressive reaction to a request for our time might range from asking “Are you deaf? I said no!” to “Not in a million years” or even “What makes you think I would want to do that?”

A passive-aggressive response can sound like “Fine” (when you’re anything but). It can also sound like, “Do I really have a choice?” It also shows up as “I’ll get back to you” and you don’t, or “Yeah, sure, I’ll be there” and then you “forget” to show up.

As much as we don’t want to disappoint, hurt or even anger our customers, clients, managers, direct reports, or friends and family, we can be assertive and firm in our no’s while being flexible enough to keep the door open for future yeses. This requires us to be clear and honest about our own needs and preferences (to do something else with our time and energy) while honoring the needs and preferences of others (to be heard, to feel appreciated, to stay connected, to avoid shame, to maintain their dignity in the face of rejection, etc.). 

Here are 20 ways to say no assertively to a request for your time:

  1. Oh, I will be so disappointed to miss this! Thank you for asking me.
  2. While I would love to do that with you/for you, [insert type of priorities] preclude it. I hope you understand.
  3. I am so flattered that you asked but unfortunately I cannot do that. Can I help you brainstorm someone who might be able to help?
  4. Normally, I would say yes, but I have already committed to ________.
  5. Right now, I am saying no to all invitations (on this topic, at this timeframe, etc.). Here’s why…
  6. I need to decline, but I do hope you’ll keep me in mind for the future. Would you please reach out again?
  7. I try very hard not to make commitments I will likely need to cancel, and because of the timing here, I can imagine needing to cancel at the last minute, leaving you in a last-minute scramble to find someone else. Because of that, I need to say no.
  8. That sounds like a fantastic event/opportunity/cause, and I know that I will be sorry to miss it.
  9. I cannot attend in person, but I wonder how I can help in some other way. Can we brainstorm ideas?
  10. Not this time, but thank you for thinking of me.
  11. I am grateful for the opportunity and for you thinking of me. However, I am totally booked with commitments I made months ago.
  12. I sit down with my calendar on Sundays. Would you please send me all of the information I need, and I’ll let you know on Monday if it works with my whole schedule?
  13. I love the cause, and I am so glad you thought of me for it, but I simply can’t commit right now.
  14. I can’t make a decision right now, and I don’t want to hold you up so feel free to ask someone else.
  15. Not this time, but when’s the next opportunity available for something like this?
  16. If only I had a clone so I could be in two places at once! Unfortunately, I can’t make it.
  17. I am heads-down on a project right now, and won’t be coming up for air for the next [insert timeframe]. Can we plan to do something after that?
  18. When do you need to know by? I ask because if it’s in the next {week/month/quarter], I will need to say no.
  19. I’m not available, but I know someone who would love to be a part of it. May I connect you?
  20. Thank you for asking me, and I know you asked me because you thought I’d enjoy it/it would be a good fit for me/opportunity. For the future, I want you to know that this isn’t the kind of thing I’m likely to do. However, I would love to tell you what I tend to yes to. Can I share that with you?

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